The flap over the release of the Pan-Am/Lockerby bomber, Abdel Al-Magrahi, has gotten me to thinking about the American national character.
I saw interviews with victims' families from the UK. One wasn't convinced by the evidence that the guy was involved in the plot. Another one didn't care b/c it wouldn't bring back her daughter. Another said the guy's spent the rest of his life in prison already, who cares where he dies.
I saw interviews with victims' families from the US. To a person, they opposed releasing the guy. He should die in prison. He should rot in jail. He should rot in hell - in prison. He didn't show compassion to the victims, why should he receive any compassion. (It goes without saying that he was guilty of the crime; it has to be the work of some one, so it might as well be him)
This made me realize something: Americans never forgive. Sure, some of them do, in some cases. But by and large, it's not part of our make-up. There are no mitigating circumstances, no desire to move on. If you stole that candy bar when you were 12, then three strikes and you're out - you should have the rest of your life to think about it behind bars. If you fuck up and lose your job, then you deserve to be homeless and hungry. Those people wouldn't have AIDS if they hadn't brought it on themselves. Right?
Even in more personal, piddling situations, people here hold grudges for an extraordinary amount of time - usually their whole lives. I guess they do that in Sicily, too. But if you posted that injudicious photo on facebook, or said something stupid in front of a microphone, or are a politician who has an affair, then bam - it's going to haunt you for the rest of your career (if you have one). It seems like the French shrug off shit like that. Life is too short. And it's going to happen anyway.
Even in the realm of criminal justice (the absence of the death penalty in EU countries is the most obvious example), there isn't the same kind of thirst for vengeance you see here. Prosecutors say that the accused should be executed so the victim's family can have "closure." Capital punishment as therapy. As though that was going to close anything. After that, you move on to suing the perp's family, then city where the crime happened, then you get more draconian laws passed, etc. It never ends.
This is all kind of ironic, since closure is big in America - in our juridical discourse, but also pop psychology, best-selling novels, religion, poetry, etc. I once was lost, but now am found. Period. Epiphany. End of story. No second acts. It's a wrap.
(Cf. Lyn Hejinian's brilliant essay linking the "closure" discourse in capital punishment to the desire for discursive closure)
Why the discrepancy? Well, closure never closes, for one thing - you have to keep tamping down the lid, b/c something is always bubbling up. That takes a lot of rage and resentment.
Then there's religion. In a country founded by religious fanatics, you'd expect this sort of thing. US Protestantism centers around the Old Testament (irrational, vindictive father-god) and the epistles (Christian unity, discipline, hierarchy - vs. the Other people). Forget the gospels - Jesus says crazy shit like "forgive your enemies." And killing him sure didn't produce closure.
Tocqueville understood that Americans embraced religion not in spite of, but because of their acquisitive materialism - it was a way of convincing themselves that they really are good people, even though they stab each other in the back from 9 to 5. Maybe the same is true for American desire for the happy ending (whether it's the guy getting the girl, or the perp frying) - we never have closure, b/c we never unclench our jaws from the rag we're shaking and growling at. There's always something else that needs closing - except in the movies.
Why are we thus? In a society where capitalism is the air you breathe, and where that social arrangement results in a lot of pain and resentment, then nothing ever gets resolved. Even if it occurs to you to, say, blame the corporations instead of the government or the immigrants for your bankruptcy, you know you can't do anything about it. So that anger and resentment is always festering, always looking for objects to cathect upon.
All speculations, of course. If anyone has figured this out, pls let me know.
At the New Orleans Poetry Festival, April, 2017 - Eileen Tabios, Tim Dyke, Lo Mei Wa and myself before the Tinfish Press reading.
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